In Focus

Concentrations 34: Shirin Neshat

Concentrations 34: Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy was a special exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art from January 13 - April 2, 2000. The following is an essay from the brochure accompanying the exhibition, written by Suzanne Weaver, then-Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art.

Soliloquy: 1. An utterance or discourse by a person who is talking to himself or herself or is disregardful of or oblivious to any hearers present (often used as a device in drama to disclose a character's innermost thoughts)

-The Random House Dictionary

With Shirin Neshat's profound and poignant film Soliloquy, the viewer enters a dark room and is positioned between two life-size, parallel projected narratives (each 17 1/2 minutes in length and on a continuous loop.) A rich, seductive soundtrack surrounds, intensifying the experience. [1] The same beautiful woman dressed in a long, black robe and scarf plays the central character (the woman is Neshat, who is also the director, co-writer, and co-editor of the film). As the film begins, we see bathed in the golden dust of sunrise an arid desert landscape of mosques, buildings faced with tile, and sand-covered ruins (an ancient city in West Asia) and a landscape of stacked freeways, towering glass buildings, and stark white buildings (a modern city in the West).

On one side, the woman gazes out her window at the ancient city below; the other stares out her window at the sprawl of the modern city. As the narrative unfolds, the woman living in the ancient city turns from her window and slowly walks along an empty cobblestone path covered by arches of stone; the other woman continues to stare out her window. (Throughout this two-part film, when there is action or movement on the part of one woman, the other appears to be motionless and intently watching what is taking place on the other side, across the exhibition space.) While moving along the path, she stops and looks back. It seems as if she recognizes and welcomes the person who is following her. She arrives at an old, decaying palace or house of worship and comes to a grid of iron bars built into one of the huge archways; as she peers though the bars out into the surrounding landscape, her expression is one of intense searching, perhaps longing. (Is she being protected or imprisoned?)

The woman living in the modern city now turns from her window and begins walking hurriedly down a long hallway. As she drives on a busy freeway, blanketed in a gritty, smog-filtered light, the loud, pulsating sounds of the city are exhilarating and unnerving. As thousands of subway goers get off rows and rows of escalators and stream by, the woman stops, turns, and looks at the camera as if she sees a familiar face through the crowd; her expression is one of tenderness without sentimentality.

Behind the woman who is standing at the grid of iron bars, many women and men in black clothing (some women are wearing black veils to cover their faces) are gathering. Reluctantly, she turns to join the group. The group begins swaying and singing, eventually stopping to stare across the exhibition space; the other woman has now come to a large plate-glass window. As she enters what seems to be a Christian place of worship, a robed group is gathered in a circle and singing. They do not beckon her to join. As she sits alone on a bench, she appears to be staring at the woman in the ancient city, who has now climbed upon a roof; her face is tattooed with lyrical lines of Arabic writing. [2] With a haunting and magnificent domed building embraced in a dusty, hot desert light looming in the background, she kneels at a basin of water and with a cup repeatedly pours water over her head. It is a simple gesture of deep symbolic and ritualistic meaning.

Near the end of the film, the woman in the ancient city runs out into sunset-reddened desert and hills toward the ruins of a city centuries past; the other runs along a desolate urban street lined with monumental, harsh white buildings. (Are they fleeing from or running toward someone or something?)

In Soliloquy, each scene is a beautifully crafted composition and could exist, in its formal and conceptual resolve, as a single still photograph. Overall, the direction is one of elegant restraint and essentialism of form. Its tender mood and graceful rhythm make Soliloquy feel like the edge of a dream.

With its minimal, concise, and clear imagery, Soliloquy compares to Neshat's provocative photographic series and videos and films (all of which are in black and white). In the photographic Unveiling series (1993), the central theme is "the veil in relation to the female body and the notion of the visible and the invisible"; the Women of Allah series (1994), which presents a Muslim woman as a militant holding a gun, addresses "issues of violence in relation to feminism, politics, and religion." [3] In Neshat's equally thought-provoking films Turbulent (1998) and Rapture (1999), both of which are dual video projections, Muslim men as well as women are present, bringing to the forefront gender relationships and dynamics. In the former, an Iranian-Kurdish male singer interpreting a 13th-century poem by Jalal ed-Din Rumi performs in front of an enthusiastic all-male audience, and on the opposite side of the exhibition space, a female singer performs, passionately and soulfully, in solitude. In the later work, a large group of men dressed in white shirts and black pants occupy a fortress, and on the other side a large group of women in traditional black chadors (traditional clothing of Islamic women) gather in a desert, eventually retreating to the sea.

With Soliloquy, Neshat continues her exploration of the politicization of the Muslim female body but broadens the universal profundity and global implications of her work by investigating the politicization of "space and spatial boundaries" [4] as well. "To me," says Neshat, "built architecture represents the authority and the principles of a traditional society...women represent human nature and all of its fragility."

On the simplest and most narrow level, Soliloquy can be viewed as semi-autobiographical. Born in Qazvin, Iran in 1957, Nesaht, at the age of seventeen, came to the United States during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shad (1909-1980) to study art. When she returned in 1990, Neshat found the dramatic changes after the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) both "frightening and exciting." [6] She recalls, "It was probably one of the most shocking experiences I have ever had - the difference between what I had remembered from Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based." [7] Since 1990, Neshat has traveled back to Iran regularly.

Neshat's deeply influential experiences of diaspora, of living away from one's ancestral homeland, are similar to those of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who has been living in London for over twenty years. Born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1952, Hatoum was visiting London in 1975 when the civil war broke out and did not return to visit her family until the mid-1980s. Like Hatoum, Neshat's work is informed by feelings of dislocation, displacement, and living in between cultures. But with both artists, their private conflicts and personal losses never restrict or narrow the power of their work to cross cultures or touch on the universal.

With poetic clarity and power, Soliloquy transcends its sociopolitical and autobiographical roots. Although we see a woman in a West Asian and a modern city, Soliloquy is not simply a story about similarities and differences between cultures - of the power of a culture's codes, architecture, and landscape to shape the behavior and beliefs of its individuals. Soliloquy is also not simply a meditation on identity, memory, and loss. As we are positioned between two worlds, shifting back and forth from traditional to modern, profane to sacred, and familiar to unfamiliar, we become active, engaged participants in this woman's personal journey, her silent dialogue with herself. Our participation is intellectual and physical. We feel utterly present. We do not simply watch but instead experience the most profound and basic human needs and desires.

[1] the soundtrack is an original score by Iranian singer-composer Sussan Deyhim. Ms. Deyhim's composition involves many elements, which include her own voice singing, live recordings of local Kurdish women and children's songs, and local radio shortwaves in both Turkey and the United States. [2] According to the artist, the writing on her face is Farsi calligraphy of a poem by an Iranian woman. In an interview, Neshat discusses her interest in how Persian art and Quaranic manuscripts incorporate the image with the text, and states, "I was also struck by the tradition of tattoo in the Middle Eastern and Indian cultures. For example, how for various types of festivities, women wrote on the palm of ther hands." Neshat, as quoted in Lina Berrucci, "Shirin Neshat: Eastern Values," Flash Art International 30 (November/December 1997), 86. [3] Ibid., 84. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid., 86. [7] Ibid.

Excerpt from

Suzanne Weaver, Concentrations 34, Shirin Neshat: Soliloquy, January 13 - April 2, 2000.